The Beat of Harmony:
Drumming with Oncology Patients
by Christine K. Stevens, MSW, M.A., MT-BC
Edited by Erin Salez
Harmony - a. the unique blending of two separate tones into one pleasing sound.
Beyond the musical definition, harmony also exists in the sense of community created when a group makes music together. On a Saturday morning in Santa Monica, California, two separate groups joined together for an experience that was unique, powerful and impactful. A group of twelve volunteer drummers from the Remo Percussion Center brought the joy and spirit they found in drumming to a group of cancer patients at The Wellness Community. In the joining of the two groups, there was a common chord of health and wellness, achieved through the experience of recreational music making.
It began with a basket of fruit shakers in the center of a circle. Out of the quiet anxiety of a group of strangers meeting for the first time, first a chuckle and then some laughter began as one by one, people chose a shaker and started making music. But it went deeper than that. Participants commented on the meaning of letting go and giving themselves permission to not be perfect, lessons important for all of us.
Through a series of rhythm activities geared towards putting people at ease with the process of making music, the group became more comfortable and relaxed. In one hour, they were playing their hearts out on the drums, creating moments of expression unrivaled by any words.
The session ended with an experience called guided imagery drumming where participants closed their eyes and drummed to a story. As a meditative activity, the drumming created a distraction from the chatter of the critical and worrying mind. After the drum circle, one patient commented that it was the first time she forgot about her cancer. She began to feel good again.
In the words of Nikki Fiske, a mother, teacher, cancer patient, and a first time drummer?
"It felt so relaxing and freeing to concentrate on the rhythms and be completely in the moment. Without judgment, without pressure? we each drummed to our own internal rhythms, yet we worked together as a group to create a unique and harmonious sound. There was a lot of laughter, sharing and mutual applause. When I left, after two hours of drumming, it was with spirit, heart and courage lifted up!"
Drumming also has important biological effects. According to a study (111 normal subjects) performed at the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, PA, one hour of group drumming following a protocol entitled, Group Empowerment Drumming™ was shown to significantly increase circulating white blood cells called natural killer (NK) cells that seek out and destroy cancer and virally infected cells. (Bittman et al. Alternative Therapy, January, 2001).
James Gordon, MD of the Mind-Body Center in Washington D.C. states "Oncologists should be open to group drumming if their patients are interested in it. Drumming can put people in a state of relaxation. It was used as a healing technique 1,000 years ago. Why not now?" (MAMM Magazine, July/August, 2001)
Remo drum volunteers agreed that they received more from the experience than
they gave. Professional drummer Sam Kestenholtz commented, "Seeing and
feeling the spirits of the participants being lifted as the group played together
was an experience like no other. It was like a room full of strangers became
a community of one."